TW: Swearing and mention of death.
Jack strolled down the dusty streets of the port towards the space shuttle for his interview. Pale men and women, ignorant after months or years in vacuum, were shifting cargo. The suns of Hellebore cooked the flesh of offworlders to a glowing boiled lobster tan that was in vogue amongst incomers.
Jack pulled down the brim of his cap. He lifted the collar of his boiler suit with one hand to save his neck from the crispy barbeque fate of the crowds. In his other hand he carried his beloved toolbox. He’d scratched his name into the rust on the lid to keep others from stealing from it.
The landing shuttle’s door lay open to the pleasant aromas of crew fart and stray dog piss. Jack was thankful for the open air and the warm breeze that carried the smells away to replace them with something worse. Sewer salad.
The captain sat in the pilot’s chair, unlocked and swiveled to face the rear door. He knocked on the hull.
“Permission to board?” He stood, shoulders back, hearing things between his shoulder blades crackle. Tanks of oxygen were strapped to the walls on both sides.
“Granted. You’re Jack?” She looked at him with the familiar only a bullet could love that face look.
“Yes, Captain.” He tried to be brief to at least get half marks for being the strong silent type.
“What are your qualifications Jack?” She looked at a hologram of him from his previous ship’s crew log. As it rotated in the air he got to see the knife wound on his chin from a whole new angle.
“I have experience, not qualifications,” he said in his usual monotone. Generous people said he had a soothing voice, good for bedtime stories. Honest people told him it was boring, vocal sedative.
“I prefer workers who are certified.”
“You can ask for references from any of my previous captains. I’m a hard worker and becasue I don’t have the certificates you don’t need to pay me as much. Bed, board, and some change is fine.”
“Thirty years experience. You’re what, thirty five?”
“Forty, Captain.” He set down his toolbox and backpack to massage his right hand. Repetitive strain injury was a bitch that could only be bribed to take breaks with serious painkillers.
“How’d you manage that?” She eyed him working at the pain where his fingers joined his palm with knowing grey eyes.
“I was born in the Hooker’s Tights.” Most people assumed that was the name of a brothel.
“Why the hell would anyone name a ship that?” asked Captain Eliza who clearly wasn’t as naive as most.
“Because it had more holes than a sieve but kept going anyway. That’s where I learnt to weld and patch. The whole crew learnt to patch in vacuum there. Those of us who survived.”
“Why did your parents allow that?”
“They died in a breach. The rest of the crew brought me up since I was ten. I helped in the kitchen. I learnt the tools. If someone blows a hole through your engine with a railgun I can have it up and running within the hour.”
“Why would anyone be shooting at my ship? Do you have enemies?”
“No, no.” He shook his head. “Just some of the ships I’ve crewed with moved cargo without paying their taxes.” It was an understatement, an exaggeration and a lie all in one. Well practiced.
“Show me your hands,” she told him, holding out hers. She had the calluses of a pilot and the scars of someone who did light repairs themselves.
He opened his notably small hands and laid them in hers, just straightening the fingers sent a spark of pain down his right middle finger. Life is pain, that was a saying he’d heard often. There are plenty of corpses wishing they could be in agony again, just to feel something.
“Number seven spanner?” Jack nodded as her thumb ran over the scar where his right palm became his wrist.
“Our engine was on fire. Far as I know the Firenze Forecaster is still running. It wasn’t just me of course. Carter was spraying it with the extinguisher the whole time.” He thought of the inferno, memories wrapped in the warm embrace of PTSD. He pushed it down.
“Cool head under pressure?”
“Nowhere to run. If something’s broken, you fix it.” He shrugged, massaging his hand again.
“Tell me about this shuttle,” she said, spreading her hands wide. She had the nails of a biter.
“A Glowbug built by Halo Industries. This is the Three-Four-Three model but the furnishings have been switched out. I don’t know about them. This is the nicest upholstery I’ve ever seen. That patch on the fuel gauge had been there for a few years judging by the discolouration beneath the tape.” Jack pointed to the dashboard.
“The landing gear is original but the shoes have been replaced recently.” He paused, thinking about the job advert. “Your ship is Panthera Tigris made but you’re using a Glowbug shuttle. That means you’ve converted the docking clamps from the proprietary design Tigris use. Probably because the Cub pods are notorious for hatch leaks.”
Captain nodded and gestured with a rotating hand either for him to continue or to hurry up. He wasn’t great with non verbal cues unless they were sign language.
“You’re advertising for six crew members which means something bad happened on your last job. Something really bad.” When she bowed her head with the dark shadow of guilt in her eyes he knew to shut up.
She sighed and stretched, elbows pointed back. Her chest pushed out as she exhaled a sigh heavy with trauma. He shouldered his backpack, expecting her to tell him to get out.
“You’re vastly overqualified, Jack. You applied for six positions but I can’t hire you for five of them officially because you lack the credentials.” She steepled her fingers, looking him in his dead blue eyes. “I’m hiring you as a cleaner and cook because that’s all I can do legally. It’s minimum wage with bed and board.”
“That’s fine,” he said but she held up her hand.
“On the books that’s what you’ll be doing. In reality I need you to train up the kid who’s supposed to be maintaining the ship. He’s certified but he’d never set a foot on deck until he joined the crew. We had an accident. He’s still jumpy and he needs a steady hand.”
“Thank you, Captain-”
“Stop interrupting me, sailor.” She pointed a finger at him, frowning. “I’ll put the difference between your wage and what a qualified mechanic would make into sponsoring you for the qualification. You can work on the course while you’re off duty. I’d like someone with your experience in the engine room.” She crossed her arms and sat back in her chair. “Now I’m done talking.”
He stood, stiff and waiting.
“Well? You want the job?” Her voice had the snarl of a dog greeting the postie.
“Yes. Yes, Captain.” He shifted on his feet, uncomfortable physically and socially.
She held out her hand. He shook it twice. That seemed to be the usual amount.
“Got any other belongings to get before we take off?” she asked rhetorically.
“No.” He scratched his head. “Captain.” He looked around the empty pod. “What about the other crew?”
“There aren’t many of us left, Jack. You have a surname? It’s not on your application.”
“Dancer,” he said flatly, knowing her next question.
“Two left feet.”
She smiled. Unlocking her chair she turned it to face the cockpit window and locked it in place again. “Strap in.”
Jack clicked himself into a harness next to the ship’s supply of oxygen. The Glowbug told gravity things weren’t going to work out between them and wished Hellebore farewell. Dusty brown landing pads by the polluted lake were lost beneath a clean blue sky. Azure faded to black. Pinpricks of brilliance peeked through the darkness to assure Jack his fiery demise was a few billion lightyears and a mad pilot away.
The Fairweather was a pencil that had been chewed in the middle.
“What hit you?” Jack asked, mouth wide.
“A mine. We broke the blockade on Copernicus.”
“Supplies. People are dying there.”
“They should surrender. Fighting the Pierce Dynasty is like trying to bail out the ocean with a bucket.” Jack just said that based on numbers. Copernicus was a new colony of a few thousand asserting its independence against an empire of hundreds of billions.
“Thanks for the metaphor. Hopefully you’re as good at patching as you’re bad at handling moral quandaries.”
During the keep your stupid mouth shut silence that followed Jack assessed the damage to his new home. The ship reversed into place, docking with the Fairweather. He introduced himself to the kid called Max that he would be training. Max kept shaking long past the two shakes Jack preferred.
“Show me the EVA suits,” Jack said, not making eye contact with the acne scarred twenty something.
“Sure thing, man.” He beckoned Jack to follow with his hand.
Jack checked his suit twice before slipping into it. Max didn’t fill his, a kid in his father’s shirt. They stood in silence in the airlock, bathed in red light. Vacuum welcomed them with cold indifference. Their magnetised boots clomped on the hull. Used to the change in strength required by a hull walk, Jack strode towards the wound in the Fairweather’s side. Max strode with the confidence of a duck through a glue puddle.
“Your boot battery is blinking. Go and charge it.” Jack tested his tether, retracting the spare and clipping it to the ring before him.
“It’ll be fine,” Max grumbled.
“Charge it. Never risk your life unless you have to. Never go out with less than a full battery unless it’s an emergency.” Jack didn’t look back. He felt the footsteps of the young man receding as vibrations on the hull.
The wound in the Fairweather had ripped the hull outwards from the point of impact. Concertina metal folds on petal rips had Jack going through his mental catalog of patches. First the panels had to be beaten back to shape.
Songs that depressed other people cheered Jack as he unclipped a hammer from his toolbox that held to the hull with its magnetic base. He hummed along as the music played in his mind, well aware what anyone else would hear sounded like a cat drowning.
Hours passed, the chorus of one song going around and around because he didn’t know the other words. With a few of the petals bent back and friction stir welded together, the aluminium hull’s wound had reduced by a tenth when the warning lights on his boots began blinking.
Disappointed to leave before the job was done, Jack packed up his toolbox and returned to the airlock.
“You were supposed to be teaching Max,” said the captain’s angry voice from a speaker by the EVA suit lockers.
“I will when his boot batteries are properly charged. There’s plenty of the same left to do and I don’t see the point in teaching him if he floats away mid lesson.”
“Max, show the new guy around.”
Running footsteps echoed down the starboard aft hallway. The breathless rake with a certificate gave a weak smile. “Welcome to the Fairweather. The tour starts here. On your right are the EVA suits you know better than I do. On your left is a backpack that’s older than my dad. Carry it yourself.” Max walked and talked with the haste of a cocaine addict dictating his will during an overdose.
“That’s the mess hall, we keep it clean though. On your right here, you’ll see the gaping wound that should be the oxygen storage bay. Pay close attention to the blood stain across what’s left on the wall there.” He pointed through the scratched glass. “His name was Dave.”
Max sniffed. “This is the aft hallway. Jet exhausts.” He pointed to two yellow doors.
“I know what a Panthera Tigris Siberia looks like. Where’s my bunk?” Jack asked with his usual tact.
“Follow me.” The young man with blond hair walked towards the nose of the ship down the portside hallway, hands in his pockets. Turning the handle for the crew bunks, Max opened the hatch to reveal blue grey metal covered with posters and bright bedding.
“Dead. Dead. Dead. Dead. Quit.” Max pointed to the different beds. “And dead.” He pointed to a top bunk with purple and green sheets. “That’s mine.” His finger aimed at black and white sheets on the bunk below. “That’s Annie’s bunk. Both of us snore. Touch her and I’ll stab you. Then she’ll stab you.”
“Noted.” Jack nodded. “Where can I take a shit?” He set down his bag on one of the empty beds.
Max showed him the door between their bedroom and the captain’s quarters. A gas mask was clipped to the door.
“That’s for the smell. There’s an air freshener in the filter. It’ll be your turn to change it when the stink gets too bad again.” Max rolled down his orange boiler suit to reveal his Spider-Man T-shirt.
“Your boots should be charged.”
“You don’t want to unpack? I can show you the shower.” Max’s high pitched voice was already getting on Jack’s nerves.
“Later. Might as well get a day’s worth of work done.” Jack massaged his hand again.
“On some planets the days last less time than we’ve been talking.” Max smiled.
“Hey, new guy. Let’s be clear about this. I’m the one who’s qualified. I’ve been crew longer than you have. You’re not the captain.”
“True, but the captain said I was to teach you. I’ve been doing this job longer than you’ve been alive. I never got my certification because I prefer work to tests. No multiple choice bullshit prepares you to operate on an engine that’s on fire. Health and safety talks don’t prepare you for when a crew-mate you know asphyxiates because they ignored a crack in their helmet.
There are going to be a lot of times when the things you’ve learned in a course from an instructor differ from what I learnt from old timers around the galaxy. Maybe your way will be better, maybe mine. We’ll have to work it out when we disagree. I’m not here to put you down. I just want to do what I’m good at, eat and sleep. Sound good?”
Max frowned and nodded.
Jack held out his hand.
They shook. After the second shake the veteran took the wrist of the youngster and pulled it away. “Two shakes is enough for me.”